February 28, 2005
New book documents first statewide civil
rights movement in Florida
By Jennifer McNulty
Decades before the Montgomery bus boycott, African Americans
in Jacksonville, Florida, organized streetcar boycotts that
forced the city to abandon efforts to segregate the system.
African Americans fighting for their rights in Florida "created
the first statewide civil rights movement in U.S. history,"
says UCSC historian Paul Ortiz.
That little-known act of rebellion is one of many instances
of African Americans
organizing against white supremacy that historian Paul Ortiz,
an assistant professor of community studies at UCSC, documents
in his new book, Emancipation Betrayed.
Handed down within black families but unknown among historians,
the story of black resistance in Florida from Reconstruction
until the bloody election of 1920 is an inspiring chapter of
Written for a general audience, Emancipation Betrayed
focuses on the African American struggle for voting rights while
documenting networks of secret societies, fraternal organizations,
labor unions, and churches that black Floridians relied on to
organize and sustain themselves in the state with the highest
lynching rate in the country.
They created the first statewide civil rights movement
in U.S. history, said Ortiz. This book is really
about what happens when people are faced with political terrorism--how
they challenge that and find the courage and self-confidence
needed to put together a social movement.
Through oral histories, Ortiz learned about the courageous
actions of African Americans who fought for their rights, often
at enormous risk to themselves and their families. Sam Dixie,
an octogenarian, told of blacks taking up arms in self-defense
and shared his childhood memories of a shootout in his hometown
of Quincy, Florida, between blacks and the Ku Klux Klan. The
Klan had found out about a secret oath taken by members of the
Colored Knights of Pythias, a black fraternal organization,
to fight for their rights, and Klansmen burned the lodge and
killed several knights during the shootout.
That memory was the catalyst that completely changed
my understanding of American history and social change,
wrote Ortiz in the preface to Emancipation Betrayed: The
Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida
from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2005).
Ortiz described going back and back in time, picking
up threads of resistance. We are not taught to see African
Americans as protagonists fighting for their own rights, but
thats exactly what these people did, he said.
Black Floridians found inspiration in the activism of their
parents and grandparents. In 1901 and 1905, black residents
of Jacksonville organized boycotts that forced the city to abandon
efforts to segregate the streetcar system. (The system was ultimately
segregated, however, with the intervention of the state legislature.)
In the long term, these organizing campaigns taught African
Americans how to challenge the system, said Ortiz.
The Colored Knights of Pythias, which at one point claimed
one in six African American men in Florida as members, was a
vital avenue for organizing, according to Ortiz. After World
War I, the knights passed a resolution requiring each member
to pay his poll tax and register to vote before the 1920 election
or face expulsion. Churches and other organizations promptly
followed suit. Years of organizing culminated with the 1920
presidential election in Florida, when the state sanctioned
white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan to use violence to prevent
blacks from voting. Between 30 and 60 African Americans were
killed, according to cautious estimates by the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and scores were
wounded and displaced.
Despite copious evidence of political terror presented during
a congressional investigation, the election results were certified.
The Florida movement was defeated.
Despite the tragic outcome, the legacy of early black activism
in Florida is a powerful one. With roots in the days of slavery,
it set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s,
Black Floridians courageous struggle for emancipation
established the grounds for our modern expectation that all
adults in the United States have the right to vote, he
said. This is a brutal part of our history, but we are
the beneficiaries of their struggle and sacrifice.
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